Beautifully Bitter

Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan, (Ten Speed Press), 264 pages, released September 16, 2014

I’m not sure that bitter is an acquired taste. Yes, as author Jennifer McLagan points out, the number of our tastebuds decreases as we age, turning flavors we hated in childhood into favorites. Some people come to bitter gradually, others like it from the start, and there are those who never learn to like it. Jennifer McLagan likes bitter—really likes it—and has the culinary, historical and scientific chops to offer us remarkably thorough treatise on this loved/hated flavor.

I’ve liked bitter since I was a kid: mustard, not ketchup, better yet, horse radish; Sen-sen, horehound, or salted licorice, not fruit pie. (OK, that’s an exaggeration. I did like pie. But I did also love those bitter candies.) As a result, as soon as I saw the cover of McLagan’s Bitter, I knew this was a book I’d want to spend time with.

McLagan breaks bitter tastes into six groups, each with its own chapter, everything from “Liquid Bitter” (beer jelly, tea poached pears, even homemade tonic water) to “Dark, Forbidden, and Very Bitter” (lamb with dark chocolate pepper sauce, tobacco chocolate truffles, roasted squab with ganache).

While there are a few “standard” offerings here (Belgian endive bathed in butter, bratwurst in beer, Brussels sprouts, bacon, and chestnuts), things you might find in an issue of Eating Well or Fine Cooking, most of her recipes fall into the I-would-never-have-come-up-with-that-on-my-own category (see the previous paragraph).

Her book gives us the histories of these foods and explains their taste chemistry. There are lots of recipes, but having this additional information makes for interesting reading—and might well convince you to taste something you thought you’d never try.

I acknowledge that I’ll never cook with marrow (yes, there’s a recipe using it) nor with cow bile (only mentioned, no recipe offered), but I’ll be making active use of this book for a good time to come.

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